“I am not afraid of my Toyota Prius”

by Ted Frank on March 11, 2010

I expand on my earlier post in today’s Washington Examiner, including my skepticism of the conventional reporting on the James Sikes incident.

Michael Fumento is also on the case on his blog and in the LA Times; see also Richard Schmidt in the New York Times on the last generation of sudden acceleration.

Update: Fumento goes farther on the James Sikes story than I did. I also found the idea that Sikes reached for the accelerator while driving implausible after trying to repeat the experiment in a (parked!) Prius.

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{ 16 comments }

1 Eric T. 03.11.10 at 5:37 pm

Fromyour WashExaminer piece:

Somehow no one in the press has asked Sikes how it is he could stop the car once it had slowed to 50 mph, but not when it was going 90 mph.

I saw an interview with him where he said he was afraid that, if he turned the car off, the wheel would lock up. He ulimately did that when the cops were next to him and was reassured it was OK to do.

2 John 03.11.10 at 6:07 pm

Don’t Toyotas have black boxes / event data recorders that record if the driver is braking, accelerating, car speed, etc.? I thought all late model cars did.

3 Colin 03.12.10 at 6:10 am

You don’t need to turn the engine off!

Shift into neutral.

modern engines are fitted with control units that prevent the engine from revving beyond it’s capability. Certainly, it will be noisier than you’ve heard it before, but it won’t explode…
With the engine running, you have full braking and steering…

(I had a silimar experience with my car – the throttle spring broke when I was driving downhill. After a few moments, I realised what was happening, turned off the engine, clutch disengaged, braked & steered to a halt. No steering lock to worry about, no power brakes fitted, no power steering fitted – no panic!)

4 Edward Lunny 03.12.10 at 8:07 am

There is far more reason to be afraid of the drivers of the Prius, and other Toyotas, than of the vehicles themselves. This situation almost begs for a comprehensive skills test before allowing the purchase of an automobile, let alone the operation of said vehicle on the public roadways.

5 Richard Nieporent 03.12.10 at 9:25 am

“A law firm representing Sikes said Thursday he has no plans to sue Toyota over the ordeal.”

http://www.foxnews.com/leisure/2010/03/11/toyota-mystified-runaway-prius-case-calif/

So he engaged a law firm to not sue Toyota. I have a bridge to sell anyone who believes that!

The Prius, unlike the other Toyota cars has a brake override that shuts off the gas when the gas pedal and the accelerator are pressed simultaneously. Thus there is no way that it could continue to accelerate if he actually pressed the brakes. Also, the calls to the dispatchers spanned 23 minutes. Therefore the total time of the incident must have been closer to 30 minutes. He managed to keep the car on the road at those speeds for that long a time while calling the 911 twice on his cell phone yet he refused to put the car in neutral or shut it off while it continued to accelerate? We are not talking about a spur of the moment decision. That defies all logic.

6 Eric T 03.12.10 at 9:59 am

So he engaged a law firm to not sue Toyota. I have a bridge to sell anyone who believes that!

Alternate theory: The lawyer is a friend of his (or did prior work of some kind for him) and Sikes asked him/them to field the blizzard of phone calls from the media. Someone asks if he is going to sue and the response is no. And that would result in the quote.

7 Dirk D 03.12.10 at 10:19 am

So he engaged a law firm to not sue Toyota. I have a bridge to sell anyone who believes that!

Another alternate theory: He plans to procure a settlement without every filing suit.

8 Ted Frank 03.12.10 at 10:26 am

Or he originally planned to sue and intensive questioning from his lawyer talked him out of it, given the risk of what might be exposed and countersuit. Lots of possibilities (including honest ones) lead to the same result.

9 Richard Nieporent 03.12.10 at 10:51 am

Mr. Sikes, this song is for you!

10 tizona 03.12.10 at 10:56 am

A Toyota Prius is a fly-by-wire design. You can only switch into neutral if that request is acknowledged by a computer. The “gear shifter” is a simple joystick control not too much different from a video game controller. Any computer system can fail or get hung up. If a Prius computer system does hang, there is no kill switch in the cockpit that provides for a direct, mechanical disconnect of all computer control to force the thing to shut down. I just hope the things don’t leverage microsoft sotware in their OS. You can’t pull the battery out of a Prius at 90 MPH on 101.

11 Eric T 03.12.10 at 2:02 pm

Or he originally planned to sue and intensive questioning from his lawyer talked him out of it…

…or he had a friend sell short in the market (who needs a long and yucky lawsuit?)…

I agree, plenty of possibilities, some honest and some not.

12 Patrick 03.12.10 at 2:13 pm

Eric, are you wearing your advocate hat, or your ordinary everyday Eric hat? Circumstantially, that Jalopnik report is devastating, exactly the sort of thing an attorney would want to know before signing up the client if this were headed to litigation.

The man looks about as credible as Balloon Boy’s dad now.

13 HappyFunBall 03.12.10 at 6:05 pm

So, I worked on a Prius a few years back. Put a remote starter in it (I know, I know…an R/S in a hybrid) Anyway, the shifter has a electromechanical locking pin activated by a small 2-wire solenoid. Every single care I worked on for 12 years had the same shifter lock-out. When you hit the brakes, current flows down those 2 wires and activates the solenoid, pulling the pin out of the way of the shifter to allow the it to move…into gear. Wanna guess what keeps it from moving out of gear? Apparently…intelligence. This pin is only used to get it into gear. There is nothing to keep a person from shifting to almost any gear…including reverse or park…WHILE in motion. There has not been one that I ever worked on the could not move out of gear. Now, before anyone tries to go and find an obscure one, has anyone actually tested this excuse on a Prius? I think that it would be enlightening.

I heard a little blurb of the 911 call where the operator asked him if he tried to move it out of gear and he first says no and then does not respond to the next immediate request to do so but just claims to be trying to control the car.

I’m sure all of the claims that “nothing” worked will now show all of the systems working perfectly. See, the gremlins in your car break and then fix it to leave no trace. And, since you are under no obligation to know or learn how to stop a car that accelerates out of control, this can never be your fault.

I heard a report on the radio that he took his car in with no other problems, they tested it for this issue even though they told him that he car was not affected by the recall, he leaves the dealership and, almost immediately, the car’s peddle “felt weird” and just stuck wide open.

Cooincidence? Or is there more? Time Life books has a series on it.

14 GA 03.12.10 at 9:10 pm

You only have data on deaths after sudden acceleration. You don’t have data on sudden acceleration.

Substitute something else such as “beat up a N-year old” for “sudden acceleration” and you’ll probably get disproportionate deaths in the elderly. Now you can argue that they died because of their age and the beater upper is not at fault.

15 Bob Lipton 03.13.10 at 11:06 am

One would think there would be a number of “sudden accelerations” that did not end in death, substantially larger than the death toll.

Bob

16 Sal 03.15.10 at 7:04 pm

To HappyFunBall

You added a remote start to a 2001-2003 Prius then, as that first generation Prius had a real mechanical shift lever that engaged a real mechanical parking pawl inside the hybrid transaxle. There is no such electromechanical shift from park release solenoid that works via brake switch input on this 2008 Prius (2004-up actually). The switch, as another commentor posted, is merely a glorified joystick. If the various ECMs don’t want a driver’s shift input to occur, it is disallowed electronically. Example, if you want to shift from park to drive you have to have your foot on the brake or the shifter switch input will be ignored. If you want to select reverse while moving forward the switch input will be ignored and the display will flash to warn of a foolish input. If you want to select neutral while moving the switch input will be processed and the traction motors and engine would power down to produce a neutral condition.

I agree with your skepticism concerning this runaway event, but wanted to clear up some misunderstandings about how the shift lever works.

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